One Hand Washes the Dishes

I want to write today about something amazing that happened.

But first, a story involving two funny middle-aged men meeting each other on a country road passing through some rice fields. I’ve embellished the dialog a bit so you get a sense of the scene:

Dizang looks up from his work and asks the traveller Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”

Xiushan adjusts his heavy bag. He says, “From the South.”

Dizang leans with with one hand on his hip, the other at the top of his hoe, and says: “How is the South these days?”

Xiushan feels the weight of the books on his back and he’s impatient to walk on. But he says, “There’s extensive discussion.”

Oh, scholars. So Dizang says, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”

Xiushan says, “What can you do about the world?”

And Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”

This is Case 12 in the collection of very old Zen teaching stories, kōans, in a 12th-century manuscript called the Book of Serenity. You have probably heard of kōans, as just like tabletop Zen sand gardens and Zen candles, Zen cookbooks, and Zen fountains they have made their way into our own lexicon, promising to help make our lives more peaceful and meaningful.

I have always been a bit afraid of kōan study. “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” And “what was your face before your mother was born?” Kōans have always been silly, impossible, intimidating. And looking at the table of contents in this manuscript gives me anything but serenity.

But I have been engaged in studying them for the better part of a month now, and as has been taught, I’ve come to see them not as highbrow riddles so much as nursery rhymes. Kōans are meant to make you shake your head like you do when an old grandfather eases the tension at the table by cracking a dad joke: Everyone stops their fussing, and groans abound while hearts open.

Kōans usually come with what is called a capping verse, a seemingly nonsensical blurb that is just as confounding as the koan itself. They are meant to give an extra dimension to the kōan, to help the student grasp the meaning. The first lines of the capping verse of Case 12 go like this:

Source and explanation variously are all made up;

passing to ear from mouth, they fall apart.

Planting fields, making rice– ordinary household matters;

Only those who have investigated to the full would know –

Having investigated to the full, you clearly know there’s nothing to seek.

Our traveller Xiushan has been busy studying and having lots of important discussions with his fellow scholars; but has this served him better than Dizang’s busy hoe? Don’t believe for a minute that this is a treatise on a rural life being better than a learned one. Rather, think a bit more about what might be meant by the phrase “investigate to the full.” There’s a clue in that line. I love this line because in an instant, you get to experience its meaning: whether you are holding a hoe or a bag full of heavy books, you drop it, and you drop more fully into yourself.

There’s plenty of ways to be preoccupied…

Also during my study period this month, I experienced a ritual called Dharma combat. This is when a person in the temple is chosen to be the head student; and to prove their understanding of Buddhist teachings, they are tested by their peers with a ceremonial series of questions. It’s staid, beautiful, and a lot of fun to watch . You wonder to yourself, would I be able to answer that question? And you root for the student like you would an Olympic figure skater, where you hold your breath at every leap and anticipate a solid landing, blade to ice.

This is where it got interesting for me, and something amazing happened.

The question came, Does anything change when you become a priest?

Head student answered, Can you feel it?

CLANG! A sudden crash in my kitchen sink, the loud ring of my saucepan hitting something hard.

I turned my head so fast, my world spun. In an instant, I returned to the scene of my own ordination. My teachers and senior priests had just left the meditation room to walk single-file to the ceremony hall where I was to become a priest. I was alone for a half-second, and my sense of wonder caught up with me. What was to come after my own solemn walk? Just then, CRASH! The Roshi’s staff, the staff that belonged to our beloved monk who’d left Japan to teach us in the West, that staff suddenly clattered to the floor.

A shakujō staff, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

My head spun back around to present-moment. Thank you, said the questioner. The senior student responded: I hope your life goes well.

I started sobbing. Back in 2005, the clatter of the shokujō felt like something otherworldly and important. I felt the old teacher there as if he were standing skin and bone. It’s a longer story; I had so many near-misses of actually meeting him in the flesh, but I kept juuust missing him, right up to his untimely death just three years before. So in 2005, I felt honored that he came to my ceremony in that way… But of course I missed the point of his visit, and it took 18 more years of dirty dishes to step into my koan fully.

CLANG! I spun around to see the gleaming saucepan balanced just so on the rim of a dirty pot.

Now. Now. Now. Don’t miss it.

Does anything change when you become a priest?

She answered, Can you feel it?


I hope your life goes well.

2 responses to “One Hand Washes the Dishes”

  1. Thank you for your words!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: